Making Polluters Pay: How to Fix State Law and Policy to Protect Groundwater and Michigan Taxpayers

Download the Polluter Pay Report (PDF)

FLOW (For Love of Water) hailed the introduction of “polluter pay” bills in the Michigan Legislature as a long overdue step toward protecting Michigan’s groundwater resources and public health from the 24,000+ contaminated sites in the state. The new legislation shifts the cost burden of cleanups from Michigan taxpayers back to the businesses and corporations responsible for the pollution.

“These bills will not only spur cleanup of historic contamination sites, but also serve as a powerful deterrent to future contamination,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director. “If potential polluters know they will have to contain their spills and clean them up rather than leave contamination in the ground, they’ll take measures to reduce the risk of significant liability.”

Kirkwood commended the sponsors, Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Representative Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor), for their bold leadership in drafting and introducing the legislation (SB 605-611).

Current law enables owners of contaminated sites to avoid cleaning up their pollution and instead to secure bans on the use of groundwater and use impermeable surfaces to limit human exposure. As a result, EGLE’s Environmental Mapper had recorded 4,244 land-use restrictions at 3,530 sites (some sites have more than one restriction) as of August 22, 2023. The total surface area covered by the restrictions is 66,332 acres – cumulatively more than twice the size of the City of Grand Rapids. Soils and/or groundwater at most of these sites remain polluted.

“When we have to ban the use of groundwater — which is the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan residents — we foster a spreading stain across the state,” Kirkwood said. “By flipping the assumption from water and land restrictions to cleanup, these bills will stop that trend and protect groundwater for Michiganders.”

FLOW has advocated a return to the polluter “pay principle” since 2018 in a series of groundwater protection reports that also set out a comprehensive policy agenda. This is consistent with strong recent public polling from Progress Michigan, which shows an overwhelming 95 percent of those polled support requiring corporations to pay to clean up their own pollution. Today, FLOW is releasing a new report: Making Polluters Pay: How to Fix State Law and Policy to Protect Groundwater and Michigan Taxpayers (2023) to provide the historical context and enduring legacy of Michigan’s repeal of polluter pay, and to articulate the urgent need for legal reforms to hold polluters accountable.

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